Róbert Hász: Diogenész kertje (Garden of Diogenes) Novel, 218 pages (Hungary, 1996)
The story is told in the first person. The narrator, his young wife and daughter have to leave their country which is being torn apart by civil war. They move to a neighbouring country where the same language is spoken but the feeling of rootlessness, the feeling of not belonging makes for an oppressive atmosphere. The narrator cannot find a job and the family has to live in a small flat on social security. He writes occasionally for a local newspaper and does odd jobs. The money he earns just pays the rent.
As time passes the narrator realises that the future holds no prospects for him. He feels like a prisoner in solitary confinement. The world seems to have turned its back on him. He escapes into the world of books. He writes, but only for himself and immerses himself in philosophy and in history. It is as if he is waiting for a wonder to happen or for a sort of redemption. He regards the world with apathy and contempt.
When his wife gets a grant from the local university the family gradually emerges from isolation and the world begins to open up for the narrator. Two strange figures appear who each try in their own way to jolt him out of his lethargy. One is Zeno, professor and intellectual outsider. He takes the narrator to coffee shops and to parties given by other intellectuals. Typical provincial figures are paraded in front of him like those in a waxworks cabinet. There is the arrogant newspaper editor, the philological faculty’s gay dean, the shady insurance salesman, the Jehova’s witness and Simon, the mathematician who has his own „vertical racial theory“. The narrator moves among these characters like a sleepwalker, a present day Hans Castorp just descended from The Magic Mountain and wishing for nothing more than to fall back into the despair and lethargy from which he has been dragged.
The second strange figure to enter the narrator’s life is the homeless Diogenes. He lives with his two companions in a scrap yard. From the first meeting the narrator feels the mystery surrounding the three men. He discovers that, contrary to first impressions, Diogenes is well educated. The narrator spends whole nights with the three and is increasingly fascinated by the strange tales Diogenes tells. He begins to grasp the connection between the distant time of myths and legends and the happenings of the present day. The world described by Diogenes is the complete opposite of the real world, like the vague promise of an intellectual world out of time and shrouded in secrets, like a prophecy of the „guardian of knowledge“ who watches the decline of civilisation and tries to preserve the immortal values for the epochs to come.
At times he believes the tales, at other times he does not. He wants to believe Diogenes but there is still the real, tangible world where he might find a place in society.
On the one hand he sees Zeno set in his direction and intent on success. On the other hand he can hardly wait for the Saturday meetings with Diogenes in the scrap yard. Diogenes tries to persuade the narrator that it would be best to renounce the world, to ignore reality and to tend his „mental garden“. According to Diogenes our day and age is doomed and the machinery of destruction is already in motion.
Diogenes more and more presses him to make a choice. There is only this one, fleeting chance. He should join up with him and free himself of all ills and sorrow. Trying to convince him Diogenes opens a secret chest which is supposed to contain stones from Atlantis. Then he leads him to an underground hiding place where thousands of books are stored to be saved when civilisation comes to an end.
The narrator cannot decide which way to go. He tries to cope with both worlds but in vain. He finally realises that he will no longer be able to find a place in society and decides to follow Diogenes. He turns his back on the world, and he chooses eternity. In the closing scene either as a catharsis or in exchange for his decision, the narrator's very ill little girl is healed. As Papa, one of the companions of Diogenes explains to the narrator, "We clean up after ourselves".
The ending of this novel leads the reader to suppose a continuation.
The author does not place the novel in a specific time or place in order to leave this to the reader’s imagination. The vain search for the meaning of life sets the mood of the novel. There is much interest for those who are fond of the arcane and the readers following the deeper connections between history and philosophy.
Kritiken / Reviews:
Hessischer Rundfunk (DE)
Hessischer Rundfunk (DE)
Le Canard (FR)
Münchner Merkur (DE)
Page Des Libraires (FR)
Österreichischer Rundfunk (AT)
More works of this writer:
A Vénusz vonulása(Le passage de Vénus)
A szalmakutyák szigete (working title: "Island of the Strawdogs")
Végvár (The Fortress)
Júliával az út (working title: The way with Julia)
<-- Róbert Hász